Unintended consequences & environmental engineering
March 4, 2003 7:21 PM   Subscribe

The Chicago River was essentially the city of Chicago's cesspool until the construction of the Chicago Ship & Sanitary Canal, which connected the Chicago River to the Mississippi Basin in 1900. Now there's serious talk of intentionally returning a section of the river to a cesspool-like state, by dumping untreated sewage and (possibly) toxic chemicals into the river. The purpose: to prevent invasive species such as the Asian Carp and the Round Goby from using this connection to cross between the Great Lakes and Mississippi basins. Is it ever possible to avoid unintended consequences in environmental engineering? And is it necessary to "go nuclear", so to speak, to try to correct them?
[Second link RealAudio; transcript here.]
posted by Johnny Assay (9 comments total)

I grew up where the Illinois River meets the Mississippi. We used to eat the fish - until the EPA made us stop. Seems that all the fish there are miniature EPA superfund sites - that's not a joke or exaggeration.

So lets add more poison to the river?

This is the worst idea that could ever possibly be, riverwise.

More later, if this develops, but till then, let's try this instead ...

Does anyone know if MARC 2000 has taken a position about this?

Thank you Johny Assay, for posting!
posted by Jos Bleau at 7:46 PM on March 4, 2003

Supersaturated nitrogen rich methanes, combined with petrochemical stagnation. Yum. Can you say "Coyahoga"? Yes, I knew you could. Are they seriously concidering this? I, for one, am very cynical about extreme efforts to prevent the human-caused evolution of non-native takeovers of habitat. Choking the waters may be the best preventative at hand, but, damn that sounds awful to me. And we still don't have a good grip on the longterm effects. Crap...just crap.

Jos, nice links. A small ray of hope in an otherwise craptastic situation.

(Johnny, newsfilter that this might be, 'seriously great post, man. Well done.)
posted by Wulfgar! at 8:12 PM on March 4, 2003

Jos - if you read the article, the plan (one of many possibilities, btw) is not to "add more poison" to the river, but to turn off the aerators. Granted, this would make the river quite a bit less pleasant, but aren't you the least bit concerned by the "NIGHTMARE SCENARIO: THE CARP ESCAPE AND CROSSBREED — OR EVOLVE INTO SUPERPESTS" headline midway through the article you posted?

I'd hope the message that sinks in as you read these articles is that it's a very complicated situation, there are no easy solutions, and whichever methods are used, they probably won't be popular with everyone. Having a severely polluted section of the chicago river may in the long run be preferable to allowing the carp to devestate the ecosystem of all the great lakes.
posted by chrisege at 8:34 PM on March 4, 2003

i echo the calls of "great post"
posted by oog at 9:19 PM on March 4, 2003

chrisege: Do read that transcript.

But Irwin Polls of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District says shutting off the aerators alone during the summer would not reduce the oxygen level enough to be lethal to the fish.


So if common carp could survive the lower oxygen levels, maybe Asian Carp could, too. If shutting off the aerators isn't enough to degrade the river's water quality, things could get messy.

It goes on to describe various pollution related options. Here's another interesting part of the transcript:

For now, the government has spent more than a million dollars on an electric barrier that repels the fish, but they need a second electric barrier for extra protection. However, more money from the government to build the second barrier has been slow in coming.

Seems like the electric barrier would be much cheaper than the inevitable cleanup, not to mention costs to public health, etc.
posted by tss at 9:37 PM on March 4, 2003

Cripes, exactly how long do they have to leave the water polluted? It seems to me that as soon as they turn the aerators back on the carp will make their way toward the lake. This could only be a short term solution at best. Or, at least until they come up with a different bit of environmental engineering that has unintended consequences.

I always look forward to summer for the Wendella commuter boat services. It's going to kill that business, not to mention city tourism in general.

What do I smell?
I smell home cooking
It's only the river
it's only the river.

posted by JohnBigBoots at 4:45 AM on March 5, 2003

10 years later...

"Just throw the match in the river, the water will put it out." "Look, it must be the Cuyahoga River."
posted by benjh at 4:56 AM on March 5, 2003

Wasn't there an alternate solution proposed? I remember reading something about lining sections of the river with electrically charged panels that would discourge fish from venturing past a certain point.

I'll do some research and will post links if and when I find them.
posted by aladfar at 6:11 AM on March 5, 2003

Aladfar: You might be referring to an already-existing barrier which uses electrodes, bubbles, and noise (somehow — I'm not entirely sure how) to create a barrier which discourages fish from crossing. Unfortunately, the current barrier is far from fail-safe, especially since asian carp are pretty good jumpers. There's been talk of creating a second barrier to improve the effectiveness, but funding for it has been hard to come by, and there's a feeling that something has to be done now before it's too late.

In any case, I don't think the plan is for the dead zone to be permanent; it would just last until the new barrier is built. Still, it flies in the face of everything we usually consider environmentally friendly. And it's possible to envision a scenario where the creation of the dead zone causes delays in the funding of the new barrier — after all, the problem would already be "solved"...
posted by Johnny Assay at 8:11 AM on March 5, 2003

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